Bill Gates has spent much of his time since Microsoft working to eliminate diseases in the world. In 2015 Gates presented a TED talk that discusses how the world was unready for a major disease outbreak. That talk was prophetic and everything he predicted came to pass.
This blog looks at the broadband industry, but in 2021 we can’t have any real discussions about the direction of broadband in 2021 without acknowledging the continuing impact of the pandemic. Gates has started a new podcast and his first episode looks at how the pandemic is going to change the way we live. Some of his predictions have direct relevance to broadband, and ISPs ought to heed some of these predictions when thinking about the future of their businesses.
Here are a few of his predictions and my thoughts on how the pandemic will affect broadband.
The pandemic is going to last longer than we all hope. Gates says that even after a vaccine tamps down the numbers in the US that we’ll continue to have flare-ups until the whole world gets the pandemic under control. He said this even before there was news that the virus seems to be mutating and creating more contagious forms. This means that while things will certainly get better than what we are experiencing in January 2021, ISPs need to expect to continue practicing pandemic protocols for a long time. Companies that get sloppy and careless are likely to pay the price by having to isolate employees. It’s unlikely that the world will control the pandemic completely during 2021, so brace for this lasting even longer.
Working at home is here to stay. Gates believes that many jobs will never return to the office. People will continue to work at home, many permanently. This has a bunch of implications for ISPs.
First, ISPs that have concentrated on downtown businesses are going to see a downturn. Gates thinks its likely that many downtown businesses will sit empty, which means that ISPs that made such building the focus of their business will need to expand elsewhere. It’s a really interesting twist to see ISP business plans turned upside down. A good case in point is CenturyLink. Before the merger with Level 3 the company was aggressively pursuing building fiber in residential neighborhoods. The company pulled a 180 and has concentrated on adding buildings to fiber rather than neighborhoods. In retrospect, the original direction might have been the right one.
This also has big implications for the cable companies. It’s clear that many households are unhappy with the upload capabilities of cable ISPs. In surveys that CCG has been doing this year, we’re seeing 30% to 50% of homes telling us that home broadband connections in cities are inadequate for working from home. I think the cable companies have been hoping this problem will blow over, but if a lot of people stay home to work, unhappiness with cable broadband is going to grow. Cable companies are going to have to invest in expensive upgrades to get faster broadband or be more vulnerable to fiber overbuilders.
Virtual meetings are here to stay. Gates predicts that the platforms used for online meetings will improve significantly over the next few years and video meetings will be a permanent alternative to travel. A huge number of people in the broadband business are road warriors, and live meetings are no longer going to be expected, or for many people even acceptable. I know that I’ve been giving some serious thoughts about largely eliminating work travel – a drastic change for a consultant. But I’ve just spent a year proving that live meetings are not needed. I’ve actually gotten to know clients better through a string of video meetings instead of a few live visits.
People are choosing where to live. Millions of people are pouring out of big cities where real estate and rents are too expensive and moving to suburbs, small towns, and rural areas instead. ISPs need to join the rest of the work world and consider remote employees. Obviously, employees that visit customers or who take care of networks must be local, but every ISP has a few functions that don’t require a person to be in the office to be effective. It’s more important to find the most talented people than it is to find people within commuting distance from your office.
A more mobile workforce has a lot of implications for employers. Employees who work from home will have options and are going to look for employers who treat them well and who offer interesting work. That means a lot of turnover for companies that don’t value employees – in the new economy many of your current employees can find other jobs without relocating. A bigger challenge for companies with remote staff is going to be creating a sense of company identity and fostering teamwork.
I doubt the current lurch is going to be the final state. (I apologize if I’m repeating myself, I might be.)
(a) we introverts are fine with telecommuting; I did it for 15 years before Covid, and I, personally, don’t mind connecting via screens or being alone a lot. The world, pre-covid was run by extroverts and I don’t think they’re giving up as easily as it currently seems.
(b) the world is shaped by promotions and career advancement, and I doubt that we’re ready to treat remote people equal to local people.
(c) it’s an unusual job where remote people are as productive as office people (in my experience).
(d) it’s somewhat unusual work and requires special skills to organize large projects with remote people. Point: office.
(e) if you go “live where you want” and truly make remote work effective for your position, you will now find yourself competing for either wages or the job itself, globally. It’s hard to be that uniquely valuable. (The people who think they can take their premium salaries along with them are delusional.) There are lots of smart, deserving people in vastly cheaper places in equivalent time zones to the north or south, and lots of work that can be made time zone independent. Look at the trajectory of graphic artists, post y2k — they went from being the stars of the dot com boom to being totally commodified via job boards. Living in a mountain town is a whole lot less glamorous if your job choices drive you into hospitality work.
(f) once you get a taste for what it’s like to stop commuting, it’s going to be really hard to go back.
(g) sales is likely to never be the same again, we’ve finally discovered that we don’t really need to use sports bars to sell things.
I totally agree that remote work and videoconfernecing will be fundamental from here on out. I think, overall, the new habits are going to make inequality worse and our workforce poorer, but I doubt it’s going to do much other than shift some work to somewhat less expensive metropolitan areas. And, commodify some more job types.
And, there will be pressure to maintain good broadband within the medium-sized cities and industry centers, as things settle out.